Your Questions for Neil – The Sequel


Our interview is currently scheduled for Tuesday, March 15th. If there’s a question you’d like to ask but don’t see something similar in the comments, now is your last chance… Please wrap up questions by early afternoon on Monday. Thanks!

Last July, we conducted an interview with TriMet’s new General Manager, Neil McFarlane, shortly after he took over the position after working a number of years as TriMet’s director of capital projects.

The interview featured questions posed by readers of PortlandTransport representing a variety of viewpoints, as well as a few questions from regular PortlandTransport contributors.

(See the original interview video series here:
Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5)

Neil has now been on the job for over six months, and Portland Transport has another opportunity to sit down for an interview coming up later this month.

So now’s your chance for another round of questioning! Please share your questions or areas of interest in the comments, and like last time, we’ll compile (and condense or combine as needed) what we believe to be a representative sample of those questions and ask them in the interview. Questions from all perspectives are welcome – as before, questions should be briefly stated, relevant to the topic of TriMet, and civil.

(Disclosure after the jump.)

Disclosure: It has recently come to my attention that a building my business leases space in may be affected by Milwaukie Light Rail construction. I have no idea at this time if there’s any program (financial or otherwise) which applies to my business, but it is possible that construction may impact me financially, positively or negatively. Since MLR is likely to come up as a topic, I feel this little disclosure is appropriate and I pledge, just like last time, impartiality.

46 responses to “Your Questions for Neil – The Sequel”

  1. Portland Transport did a terrific job on this last time and I’m really looking forward to the sequel. It seems like a really efficient way for TriMet to communicate its strategy to the region’s citizen transit activists.

    I’m sure I’ll think of more questions, but here’s one I had during the last board meeting.

    What is Neil’s personal explanation for TriMet’s failure, over the last decade, to set aside enough money to meet its implicit promises to future retirees?


    Sometimes this issue has been framed as “worker benefits are too high.” Sometimes it’s been framed as “management gave away the store.” But neither of these things would be as big a problem if TriMet had followed the good financial practice of building post-employment labor costs into current operating costs. Every hour somebody spends operating a bus should carry (for example) $18 in wage cost, $6 in current medical cost, $5 in implied future pension cost (based on the current contract) and $5 in implied future medical cost (again, based on the current contract). But from what I understand, TriMet’s budgets have ignored that last $5.

    Is my understanding correct? If so, why does Neil think that happened?

    A few possible reasons:
    – Management has long seen the retiree medical benefits as doomed, and assumed there was no point in saving money for them.
    – Management decided to undermine the benefits by not saving money for them, and labor failed to respond to this negotiating strategy by insisting on better financial management.
    – Management and labor both assumed a glorious future in which all their mutual hopes and dreams could come true.
    – Everybody was just too busy and immediate improvements to transit service were just too politically popular to take the future seriously.

    Am I being ungenerous?

  2. If we were tomorrow to experience the worst case scenario quake within TriMet’s emergency planning, how long would it take to get all the rail services back on line? How would buses be reallocated during the interim – i.e. would it be across the board or would lower ridership services be eliminated as is more the case with current cuts?

    TriMet’s $3.5 million subsidy to Portland Streetcar was about 60% of their FY 2010 budget. Streetcar riders paid less than 10%, a much lower percentage than TriMet riders. It’s not just the FRZ; Portland Streetcar’s fare structure undercuts competing TriMet services. Are there any plans to get a more equitable financial arrangement?

  3. Here’s my question; already posed to TriMet, but not Neil.

    From: Max Campos
    Sent: Friday, October 01, 2010 1:58 AM
    To: Lehto, Alan
    Subject: TriMet “state of transit”

    Hi Alan,
    I caught your Railvolution talk on You Tube –

    Good presentation, but here’s my question:

    Why doesn’t TriMet do presentations like this for its residents? It seems really baffling to me that we do such a great job informing visitors or possibly the board, but not those who depend on the system or are being asked, for example, to pass a bond measure.

    My suggestion: How about an annual (or quarterly) “state of transit” presentation? Key components would be:

    a) make it as open to public as possible (not just politicos and the media)
    – Anyone can come to the presentation
    – Post the videos, slides, etc. online for the public
    c) give a status update of current projects, future projects, etc
    d) give justification for projects
    – Why are we expanding rail while cutting service?
    – Why is rail a good long-term investment?
    – How is rail cheaper than bus?
    e) articulate “the vision”
    – Where should we be 30 years from now?
    – How have we progressed towards that vision since last year?
    f) recent successes
    – TransitTracker by text
    – Seating added to bus poles
    – 2900 series busses
    – how a TriMet bus operator with his/her “eyes on the street”helped to solve a crime
    – etc.
    g) showing the public how TriMet, the public entity, is effectively working for the public good
    – “Where does your tax dollar go?” pie chart
    h) What is it that TriMet wants to to tell the public about what it’s doing?
    i) What is TriMet doing that the public should be excited about?

    TriMet has a real opportunity here. It should be proactive in articulating its message, rather than reactive. If TriMet’s isn’t continually showing its value, then people will always assume that there isn’t value — and they will be more hesitant to approve LRT lines, bond measures, etc.

    Think about it – who would you invest in?
    – The random guy on the street who asking if you can spare a buck?
    – Or your old friend who you know, are familiar with his situation, trust him, has shown his ability to use money wisely in the past, has
    helped you in your time of need, etc.

    Something to think about.

    – Max
    one of those TriMet transit app developers

  4. 1.
    Perhaps Neil will explain the 2nd-tier status of bus service at TM.

    The memo linked below, which is a background paper for next week’s Oregon Transportation Commission meeting on Wednesday.

    TM is seeking $13 million in ODOT Flex Funds to help fill the last hole in local funding for the Milwaukie LR project.

    The ODOT staff is recommending the money, which will come from a number of sources, including ODOT’s Capital Bus Program.

    Under this proposal, “TriMet would receive approximately $13 million, and would agree to refrain from requesting Capital Bus Program funds for bus purchases for the next three biennia…” (page 2 of memo).

    A few days ago ina the TM board meeting the CFO made a budget presentation; she said TM has “one of the oldest bus fleets in the nation”; 161 buses (26% of fleet) are 18 years or older; TriMet’s average fleet age is 12 years, while the national average among the largest 100 transit agencies is 7.4.

    Neil TM went to the voters last fall asking for $125 million for bus capital projects.

    Yet TM is quite willing to give up any ODOT bus capital grants for the next 6 years so they can feed the light rail beast.


    The auditor reported that last year TriMet saw a one year $27 million increase in cost of fringe benefits. So they made $27 million in cuts to service.

    In 4 months another budget will need approving. Perhaps Neil will share what he knows about the next budget and round of cuts?

  5. feed the light rail beast

    The substance of your question will be duly considered for incorporation with the others, but that portion is not exactly what I’d call “civil”.

  6. My questions:

    1) There have been a lot of concerns from the public concerning TriMet’s finances–in particular, concern around issues such as the unfunded pension obligations, the ongoing labor negotiations, the state of the economy, and demographic shifts in the metro population long-term. Such concern is aggravated by what appears to be an effort to overturn every cushion to find revenue sources to complete the Milwaukie MAX funding package. An attempt to raise funding from voters this past fall was defeated. Many in the community are concerned that in order to meet financial obligations, that more service cuts will be necessary. The message from the agency seems to be that such concerns are overblown; after the audit was published, you uttered a remark that the concern over the unfunded liability was “adding apples, oranges and grapefruits together to get a completely unreasonable number.” What does TriMet’s future financial picture look like over the long term, and what assumptions go into this forecast?

    2) The proposed Lake Oswego transit project, which appears to be advancing one of several streetcar options to the FEIS, is the first application of so-called “rapid streetcar” in Portland–use of smaller streetcar-class vehicles in rapid transit applications, with the existing Portland Streetcar services essentially being local mixed-traffic circulators. Rapid Streetcar is also discussed as a possibility for the Southwest Corridor project. Do you see TriMet operating streetcar-class vehicles on TriMet-branded routes in the future, and/or sharing alignments with MAX where it makes sense (such as on the Transit Mall), beyond the planned multiplexing across the new Caruthers bridge?

    3) Two softballs concerning Milwaukie MAX. It’s often referred to as the “orange line”, though many have the opinion that it would be better suited as an extension of the Yellow or Green lines, so N/S through trips will be possible. Has the route designation been determined, and if so, what color will it be?

    4) Second softball: What will be the procedure for naming the new Caruthers Bridge (assuming that it isn’t to be called the “Caruthers Bridge”)?

    5) There are several lines (the 35 and the 76, for instance) which are in important, high-traffic corridors, and which have been in the “future frequent service” state for years, it seems. Some suspect that they are permanently stuck on the “edge of the funnel”–important enough to get listed in long-range plans, not important enough to advance to implementation. What conditions are necessary for these, other other routes, to become frequent service?

    6) One more softball. MAX turns 25 this year; as the original eastside line opened in 1986. What’s planned? (So far, google returns no references to the anniversary).

  7. “but that portion is not exactly what I’d call “civil”.”

    That’s mild and non-offensive.

    How about

    “Apples and oranges put together to create an unreasonable number.”

    Now that was offensive.

    Perhaps you can ask Neil why he didn’t tell the good Moss-Adams folks that when they presented their audit. Instead he gave them props for their fine work.
    That leaves McFarlane’s comment as the pure manipulative deceit that it was.
    Is that appropriate?

  8. -When will Tri-Met build an actual underground system for its MAX service through downtown?

    -When will Tri-Met seriously look at its lack of frequency and speed as a serious impediment to mode split growth?

    -What’s the future of rail free zone? Given security issues and quality of life problems in these areas; will the Streetcar and MAX start asking for fair in these areas to alleviate these problems?

  9. Steve,

    Neil McFarlane is not a commenter on this forum. Were he to come here and say something naughty, we’d bleep him too.

    I agree with you that his “fruit” remark was rather tone deaf–though unless you’re a watermelon, I fail to see how it is offensive. (Critics of TriMet should be happy he said it; if anything it was the PR equivalent of passing to the cornerback). And FWIW, the remark wasn’t directed to the auditors, but to some of the agency’s critics.

  10. “-When will Tri-Met seriously look at its lack of frequency and speed as a serious impediment to mode split growth?”

    I like that one a lot. Speed has been getting shortchanged in favor of development potential. That is certainly not to say development potential isn’t important (hardly) but speed is also very important if people are going to choose transit. It cant take 4 times as long to go by transit as drive.

  11. Could TriMet start lobbying for the creation industries here in Oregon that can help decrease capital costs of transit vehicle provision? E.g. pushing policymakers to jump start bus-rapid transit vehicle production as they did with streetcars, perhaps in the Marathon Coach Inc. space in Coburg.

  12. What time frame has Neil envisioned for retirement? As soon as the final MLR funding is approved and/or his GM salary becomes the calculator for his pension?

  13. My question for Neil-

    Why are you turning Trimet into a hostile workplace?


    (actually i am planning on asking him this myself at the board meeting)

  14. Al,

    Can you rephrase that so it doesn’t assume the premise that Neil is actively doing such? (Consider what decisions/policies do you feel are making this a hostile workplace, and include those decisions in your question.)

  15. Is Tri-Met willing to look at double-decker and/or articulated buses for long-haul, limited stop (BRT-lite) service? If so, on which corridors?

  16. This is my first real post on this website, even though I’ve followed it for years. I am REALLY glad others besides myself are wondering about speed:

    ws Says:
    “-When will Tri-Met build an actual underground system for its MAX service through downtown?
    -When will Tri-Met seriously look at its lack of frequency and speed as a serious impediment to mode split growth?”

    jon Says:
    “‘-When will Tri-Met seriously look at its lack of frequency and speed as a serious impediment to mode split growth?’
    I like that one a lot. Speed has been getting shortchanged in favor of development potential. That is certainly not to say development potential isn’t important (hardly) but speed is also very important if people are going to choose transit. It cant take 4 times as long to go by transit as drive.”

    During the November 30th interview on OPB, I was ready to scream when Neil McFarlane was actually cut off while about to mention that MAX speed in downtown was a problem.

    @ 37 minutes and 37 seconds.

    I don’t know that building an underground system is cost effective after having just remodeled the transit mall for rail (even though it needs to be done eventually), but there are some easy and cheap things to do to increase speed right now – such as ending the stopping of the trains every two blocks (think how absurd that is!)

    Example: Kings Hill/SW Salmon would be the first on my list to be eliminated. It is one block away from PGE Park Eastbound and two blocks from PGE Park Westbound.

  17. The major problem I have is Tri-Met’s apparently blatant denial towards our slow transit system.

    The Portland Metro area — barring any major peak oil shortage (even at that point the blue line will be so crowded because it is still surface streets) — will never have much higher than 12% modal split for transit from my vantage point. I simply cannot see, in the trajectory we’re going, any future growth possible. People simply will vote with their cars, feet, and bikes, and the numbers are proving it. A person driving to a light rail station is not truly taking transit.

    Census data shows that Portland metro area’s modal split has essentially been flat over the course of years after have billions poured into a very mediocre rail system.

    Some easy steps to take:

    1) An express light rail line that gets people into and through downtown during peak hours.

    2) Better express buses for peak times.

    3) Look at the possibility of building a raised light rail system if subways are not possible.

    Everyone needs to get out of their Portland is #1 transit system in the US delusional mindset and ride Metro in DC or ride a subway system that gets you somewhere in a decent amount of time. The gastly shortcomings of our rail system is very apparent.

    I want transit, and quality urbanism to take hold in our region more than anyone out there — but being truthful about something is important.

    I ask each individual out there to be objective regarding our transit system. Look beyond the sleek rail projects, the TODs, and the fancy planning materials.

    Is our transit system fast and frequent? The answer in my mind is no, and I simply cannot keep defending Tri-Met and its ways as a did before.

    Maybe you all can have your epiphany as I did a few months ago.

  18. ws: I agree. Streets are for Streetcars.

    It’s time to look beyond what MAX was in 1986 and view it as an actual rail system now. Trains run in four directions from downtown now! (wow! Good job USA!)

    “Everyone needs to get out of their Portland is #1 transit system”
    -I, too, see this as a huge problem. Whenever a friend comes in to town to visit, I explain to them the huge flaws in our rail system (slow speeds, lack of downtown grade separation, honor-system for fares, no access control, etc). Each time, natives around me inform me that it’s the greatest rail system in the world. Decades of praise has gone to our heads.

  19. Well, I’ve maintained for years now that if we can build a subway for sewage (which we have), we can build a subway for people.

    The Big Pipe project is of an approximate dimension and specifications as that of a rail subway tube. (Not exactly, but well within the ballpark.) There’s even tracks in it (at least during construction).

    Station vaults, elevators, access, etc., are disruptive to construct, but getting across the river and under streets shouldn’t scare people (not until the price tag comes in… let’s get a basic design and a ballpark price and then decide…)

    My 2cents.

  20. The East Side Big Pipe is actually 1 foot in diameter larger than the Robertson tunnels. Somebody in an earlier thread (EngineerScotty?) wondered if we could just reuse the TBM for that project.

  21. Also, I remember that TriMet considered building a tunnel before, with a single stop between Rose Quarter and Goose Hollow, but rejected it saying that the loss of access to various places downtown would outweigh the speed benefits. But if we built the tunnel, couldn’t we use both the surface tracks as a local service (perhaps with a shuttle) and the tunnel as an express?

  22. Juke: Exactly! The current tracks do not need to be torn up. An underground Lloyd District stop, an east-downtown stop, and a west downtown stop on the Blue-Red mainline (for example) would work well.

    I had a discussion with Carl Hostika (Metro councilor) about the idea of a subway a year ago, and he (and possibly Metro as a whole) are aware it is an issue (especially the cost). Councilor Hostika said he’d never thought about it until he visited other cities and realized that so many others have subways. Metro’s HCT plan highlights the downtown CBD as a special zone for rail/transit improvements. There are huge benefits to MAX underground. In addition to the other things I mentioned above:
    -Reduced operating costs; pushing MAX through downtown faster and more efficiently would reduce the number of trains needed to provide the same amount of service.
    -Increased safety. No more mixing cars, trucks, peds, bikes, buses, and trains on a single city street. This also has the benefit of keeping reliability high (no more collisions and stop lights!)

  23. We should do a separate thread in the future on the subway discussion… there have been a few interesting (in a good way!) ideas posted here over the years…

    Let’s return this thread now to specific questions for Neil in our upcoming video, tentatively scheduled to film later next week.

  24. Sorry for the derail, Bob.

    I definitely second the people who want to ask Neil about double-deckers. Ever since Ron’s guest post about them, I’ve been kinda obsessed.

    Could we ask him about his thoughts on access to light rail lines outside downtown? As EngineerScotty has pointed out a few times, a problem with projects such as the Green Line and MLR is that running them along the freeways reduces station access; running them on streets would allow for better access, but would be much slower; running them underground would allow significantly better speed and access, but would be much more costly, etc.

  25. Neil,

    I would like to reiterate the speed/tunnel issue as it is the single most negative attribute of Trimet’s rail system. Please address this.

    I will also second juke here in my concern about the location of future rail stations. For example, on the planned Barbur Blvd route, service running along or in Barbur would attract only a fraction of riders that an underground route would. An underground route would serve the population and commercial centers of the area and provide a swift trip to the central city, as opposed to a Barbur road only route that would create congestion, increase travel time, and miss out on at least half of the population centers.

  26. Neil:

    What’s the future of TODs? Is the concept of building dense developments in far-flung suburbs still a priority?

  27. Everyone needs to get out of their Portland is #1 transit system in the US delusional mindset

    I think there’s a fair case to be made based on ridership numbers that MAX is the best region-wide LRT-only rail network in the country. But that’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement. Having the Blue, Red and Green lines share a fully grade-separated route (including a downtown tunnel) from Gateway to Beaverton TC would be a massive improvement for the system.

  28. An Update –

    Our original schedule had the interview set for tomorrow, Thursday, Feb 24th. As this may likely be a snow day, which makes life, well, interesting for transit riders and TriMet employees alike, TriMet asked if we could reschedule.

    The new interview date is set for March 15th, so there’s still time to post your question(s) here if there’s a topic you’d like to see addressed.

  29. What are TriMet’s plans regarding bringing on more fare inspectors, and why does TriMet only hire fare inspectors who are already bus drivers?

    What plans are on the horizon regarding electronic fares?

  30. Asking questions of Neil right now is absurd.
    Since your first interview he has lost total credibility as far as I am concerned.
    He has adopted a “Scott Walker” philosophy, my way or the highway!

    I would ask him why has he taken away my rights at Trimet that every other single rider of Trimet has?
    I am prohibited from activities that anybody can do, but since I work there I cannot do those things under threat of termination.

    I never had one issue with Freedom of speech when Fred was in charge, the whole atmosphere has changed for the worse.

    He is trying to quash any voice of dissent from within, and we know it.

    Why should we be happy right now?
    He is shoving things down our throats!

    How does he explain THIS!

  31. Al, I can’t really figure out what you’re getting at – what is the specific complaint, without the hysterics?

    All I can figure out is there is something TriMets customers can do that you cannot as an employee, and that is has something to do with free speech. But you’re on a public blog using your real name bashing the people that pay your bills without apparently any fear of being canned for it. How are they violating your constitutional rights?

  32. All I know is the only problems I had when Fred was here was driving and filming.

    It was no big deal for awhile, then everybody around me got hysterical!

    Now I can’t do anything on the system anymore, not when I am on duty, not when I am off duty, not when I am off duty and out of uniform.

    I had to make all my dispatch calls private to members that I know personally now.

    And I have been fighting this this completely illogical and immoral expansion of the system for a long time now!

    You come work here and see how oppressive things can be here then talk to me.

    I’m the only voice of the bus operator on the internet in reality.

    The union doesn’t do it, the company things we are bozo’s with no brains, and the public disdains us, just look at your own blog postings.

    I work under intolerable conditions like searing heat in summer in old non air conditioned buses in a job where you could end up in the newspaper (as I have several times now)over the most trivial of things!

    I had freedoms under Fred, I don’t have them now.

    There is nothing else to be said but I don’t expect anybody here to actually bring that up to Macfarlane, I’ll do it myself in my own sweet time.

  33. You people in Portland have no idea what I am talking about.

    Because you have great service!
    Nobody that lives inside Portland has a right to complain about transit.

    You live out on the west side and take a look.

    That’s the Trimet that the magazines never see, the Trimet that the town of BORING just pulled out of.

    Oh yea, ask Macfarlane about Boring.

  34. Take it easy with the back-and-forth, please phrase your comments in the form of direct (but civil) questions. Thanks.

  35. I don’t know if this has already been asked, but is there any plan to charge a fee, even a nominal one, at park and rides as a source of revenue? Just as an example, on the west side the park & ride at Sunset TC has 587 regular spaces that fill up pretty quickly by people who don’t want to deal with Vista Tunnel traffic or downtown parking rates. Even if those people were charged something like $2 to park there all day, it’s still much cheaper than what they’d be paying downtown, but that’d be a gain of nearly $6000 added revenue per week (just counting business days) for that one garage.

  36. J:

    You could probably apply the same “cost of free” parking analysis to TriMet’s free parking it dolls out. It does get a bit of a free pass in criticism.

    I think the more glaring problem is the lack of frequent bus service directly to park and rides.

    Have a bus that operates at 10 minute headways to these park and ride lots or regular MAX station lots will alleviate a lot of parking pressure.

    If one is to implement a parking cost at LR stations, it would be wrong to charge and not at the least fund better bus service to those said stations.

    There needs to be viable options. I don’t see viable options (30 minute headways). We can’t be punitive for the sake of being punitive/getting revenue.

  37. Another question:

    What’s the future of reducing fares for intra-zone travel? $2.05 is a high price for only going a few blocks. What’s the future of restructuring the fare zones?

  38. One of the biggest obstacles for a lot people living and working in the suburbs is finding an efficient way to get to work by public transit. A big example is the lack of service from Oregon City to Tualatin, Tigard and Wilsonville.

    Is TriMet willing to look into maybe combining some suburban routes to reduce lengthy transfers, increase service frequency and improve operating hours?

  39. J,

    The lack of parking fees at busy park and rides (especially with expensive parking garages) is especially absurd when you consider that they are now charging for secure bike parking at those locations. I wonder what the capital cost is on a per spot basis for a parking garage car spot or a bike shelter spot. I think they need to charge at all park and rides that have garages (Sunset, Gateway, Clackamas TC); perhaps just during peak use.

    The suburban park and riders are not paying their fair share.

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